AOL update intensifies IM contest

America Online Inc. (AOL) has updated its instant messaging service with an online address book and the ability to send text messages direct to mobile phones. The move intensifies the competition between instant messaging service providers, among them Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., to multiply the communication technologies and information services supported by their software.

AIM Triton, released Tuesday, also includes voice and video chat services and an e-mail client. It is available for free download, and works with Windows XP and Windows 2000, AOL said.

To help users manage all the new ways of chatting with their friends, AIM Triton pulls active communications together into a single window, with a grid listing buddy names along one axis and communication methods along the other. By clicking on tabs at the edge of the window, users can switch between conversations or between chat and video.

AIM’s Buddy List contact database has been expanded, and now includes a link to an online address book hosted by Plaxo Inc. The Buddy List can store 500 contacts, and the address book 5,000. The address book can even help buddies stay in touch offline too: a new feature simplifies the printing of mailing labels, AOL said.

The update also contains a beta version of a video instant messaging service, a telephony service that can connect to any computer with Web access, and a VOIP (voice over IP) service that supports conference calls between up to 20 users, AOL said.

One goal of the new software is to simplify certain tasks performed by the old version. For example, sharing a file now involves dragging it to a chat window and dropping it there. Such ease of use could make it easy for spammers to send unwanted messages or files to many users at once, so AOL has also incorporated a filtering system called IM Catcher for messages from unknown senders.

In some respects, AOL is playing catch-up with its competitors. Yahoo Messenger already offers drag-and-drop sharing of photos, for example, and has links from its contact list to the Yahoo Address Book, while Microsoft’s MSN Messenger can send messages directly to cell phones via SMS (Short Message Service).

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